Sunday, March 9, 2014

My pawnshop guitar and some fellows from The Cure

Lol Tolhurst and Meghan Gohil

Little story about a pawnshop guitar, an Alvarez acoustic.

I picked it up at the pawn shop on South Grand in St. Louis for $75. I got a lot of songs out of that guitar, and then passed it along. My buddy Meghan Gohil was starting Hollywood Recording Studio, and studio guys love to have guitar options.

Now one of his steady studio gigs is recording Levinhurst, a project led by Meghan's good friend Lol Tolhurst. Lol was a founding member of The Cure, and Levinhurst is Lol's project with his wife, the equally talented Cindy Levinson. Really great stuff.

Michael Dempsey, a friend of Lol's (and a fellow founding member of The Cure), joined Levinhurst recently to record an e.p. at Hollywood Recording Studio. Michael took a picture of my old pawnshop guitar.

My pawnshop guitar at Hollywood Recording Studio
Photo by Michael Dempsey

"If you'll note, the high E string is removed," Meghan pointed out. "Michael asked me to take this off for the recording sessions, so he essentially played it as a five-string guitar. Most five-string players, like Keith Richards and Pete Townshend, typically remove the low E string."

Michael played my old pawnshop Alvarez on their record. Here he is working out a song with Cindy on it.

Michael Dempsey chording my old pawnshop guitar
as he and Cindy Levinson work out a Levinhurst song.
Photo by Meghan Gohil
Hollywood Recording Studio

"You can see three amps in the picture," Meghan notes: "the one on the bottom right is an old Sears Silvertone (my first guitar amp, bought out of the catalog for $79)."

The record these folks made with my old pawnshop guitar and Meghan's out-of-the-catalog amp is really terrific! I'd call it shimmering hypno pop. In the first of the three songs on the e.p., "Somewhere Something," the acoustic guitar establishes the arrangement and the texture of the mix. My old acoustic guitar, in Michael Dempsey's hands, is in very good voice. Check out their e.p. on iTunes.

"Somewhere, Nothing is Everything"

This week and next week, Meghan tells me, they're going to be broadcasting songs from the new e.p. on a show called "The Lopsided World of Jonathan L," an internet radio show that plays on stations based in Athens, Berlin, L.A. and Phoenix. (More on that also at

I asked Meghan for a video of The Cure back in the day where Lol and Michael are featured. The official video for "10:15 Saturday Night" has good looks at Lol on drums and Michael on bass, as well as of course Robert Smith on vocals/guitar. What a very great band The Cure was when Lol and Michael backed up the very young Robert Smith.

Lol starts "10:15 Saturday Night," with his simple stick on cymbal, and Michael closes it with an intense, unadorned solo bass figure. I really like the thought that the musician's hands that finished off this absolutely perfect piece of post-punk rock by The Cure have now voiced chords on my old pawnshop Alvarez.

The back of Meghan's $79 Sears amp
Hollywood Recording Studio
Photo by Michael Dempsey

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Songs from Home: "After the Money from Mama was Gone" by Bob Reuter

Under the band name Three Fried Men, we have been recording songs by St. Louis songwriters of our generation. Next up: "After the Money from Mama was Gone" by the late Bob Reuter, with Fred Friction on lead vocal.


Free mp3

"After the Money from Mama was Gone"
(Bob Reuter)
Three Fried Men with Fred Friction

Fred Friction: vocals
Nick Barbieri: drums, rhythm acoustic guitar
Mark Buckheit: lap steel guitar
David Melson: bass, acoustic guitar

Recorded by Nick Barbieri and David Melson in St. Louis, MO
Mixed by Meghan Gohil at Hollywood Recording Studio in Los Angeles, CA
Mastered by Elijah "LIJ" Shaw at the Toy Box Studio in East Nashville, TN
Produced by Chris King for Confluence City



"After the Money from Mama was Gone" was recorded by Bob Reuter and his band Kamikaze Cowboy on their record Down in America (2000), produced by Michael Martin at the Broom Factory in St. Louis. A lot of us think that's one of the best records ever made in St. Louis by anybody, so follow that there link to the Kamikaze Bandcamp page.

Bob Reuter's songwriting speaks for itself more eloquently than anyone else could, but in this song I especially savor how Bob dwelled on local detail and picked out place names from his north St. Louis city and county environment, like Bruce Springsteen bravely putting the Jersey shore towns and interstates on the map of American music.

Bob sings,

And the bad kids down there on Hall Street,
burning up engines and wine,
burning like sunstroke, drifting like cowpokes,
bursting in flames up off of the line

and a St. Louis drag racing landmark has been burned forever into public memory. Bob always stayed a sure step ahead of his critics - it was no surprise, when KDHX gave him his own radio show, to discover that he knew everything about American music - and I submit that Bob knew exactly what he was doing right here within the tradition of American story songs, and that is what the cowpokes are doing in the imagery (in addition to supplying a gorgeous internal rhyme): that's Bob tipping the Kamikaze Cowboy hat and whistling across the smoking tip of his gun.

Fred Friction
I love to work with Fred Friction as a vocalist, have done so for many years, and thought of him first when I got the itch to record this song. When I called Fred about the idea, he pretty much shouted, "Yes! That has always been one of my favorite of Bob's songs!" Nick Barbieri recorded Fred's vocal in one single take -- this is the kind of song Fred exhales; it's part of him, it is him. When I shared the final mix and master of this recording with Mike Martin, who recorded Bob's original version on Down in America, Mike agreed that Fred was perfect for this song.

We offer the tribute in Bob's memory.

The song was composed and (c) Bob Reuter and is the property of his estate: This cover version is intended for free sharing and non-commercial use with full composition credit and (c) reserved by Bob Reuter and estate. Production-quality audio is available for community radio or local compilations, upon request.


Previously on Songs from Home
"Midget's" by Chuck Reinhart
"Had to End Sometime" by Bob Reuter

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Songs from Home: "Midget's" by Chuck Reinhart

Chuck Reinhart
(at Poetry Scores costume review party, in soldier garb)
Three Fried Men is recording songs by St. Louis songwriters that have been stuck in my head for half of my life. First we did "Had to End Sometime" by the late Bob Reuter. Next up: "Midget's" by Chuck Reinhart.

I know the song from the Guitar Circle, a sort of hootenanny in the round (without the jamming) that flourished in St. Louis in the late '90s and early oughts, centered around Michael Friedman and Roy Kasten. This song really gets under my skin. I actually wept at one Guitar Circle over the line "Is there any reason to update what your heart holds dear?" which strikes me as the perfectly innocent question to ask about growing up and older.

We are posting this performance with Chuck's permission. I very hesitantly asked him if he wanted to tell any of the actual stories behind the song, assuming there are any. I assume there are because the song sounds so much like my own life. I almost don't want to know what Chuck's actual stories are, though, for fear that learning more about the song would diminish the spell it casts on me.

Chuck is not much of an e-mailer, doesn't seem to have a social media presence. I'm not waiting for his answer about the stories behind the song - it could be a long wait - though I will add his story here if I get anything.

I don't know much about the composer. Chuck and I have been at many Guitar Circles together, but that was all about listening to songs. He acted (extremely effectively) in a Poetry Scores movie, Go South for Animal Index, but those shoots were all hectic business. Kind of the same way I feel about "Midget's," Chuck has a quiet mystery about him I've liked keeping intact. He strikes me as the kind of square-jawed, taciturn, decent, sincere man who belongs in an earlier era of cinema. Though a gal pal gave him a ride to the Go South premiere and found him very pleasantly forthcoming.

I think this comment from Chuck sets his tone. I'd emailed him our recording of "Midget's" to ask for his permission to post it for free sharing, and he responded, "Thanks for taking time out of your one and only life to give my song your attention."
-- Chris King



(Chuck Reinhart)

Performed by Three Fried Men
Nick Barbieri: vocals, drums, guitar, keyboard
Mark Buckheit: lap steel, guitar
David Melson: bass, guitars, organ

Produced by Chris King for Confluence City
Recorded by Nick Barbieri and David Melson in St. Louis, MO
Mixed by Meghan Gohil at Hollywood Recording Studio in Los Angeles, CA
Mastered by Elijah "LIJ" Shaw at the Toy Box in East Nashville, TN

(c) Chuck Reinhart

Feel free to download this performance from our Box account and freely share or post it with credit. The composition belongs to Chuck Reinhart. We could probably find him for you.


You can hear Chuck Reinhart's own performance of "Midget's" in Confluence City's Bootblogging series.


Previously on Songs from Home

"Had to End Sometime" by Bob Reuter

Chuck Reinhart (center)
as a Los Alamos sentinel at the zombie barber shave
(featuring Thom Fletcher and Joyce Pillow);
location still from the Poetry Scores movie
Go South for Animal Index

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Hanging out with Orhan Veli, Kurt Vonnegut and Defne

Orhan Veli

Kurt Vonnegut

I have been invited to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library to participate in the launch party of Issue No. 2 of its new(ish) literary journal So It Goes. The call was for funny work, befitting a namesake library for a hilarious writer, and the editor took from me a funny poem about poverty by the modern Turkish poet Orhan Veli, translated into English by Defne Halman and myself. I am hoping I can drag my family to Indianapolis so I can play esteemed Turkish co-translator for a day.

This invitation reminded me I had never properly celebrated all of the work Defne and I had in the inaugural issue of So It Goes, themed after war and armistice, befitting a namesake library for a  writer of war and peace. So here it goes.

The editors published not one, not two, not three, not four, but five Orhan Veli poems that the Turkish actress Defne Halman and I translated in New York City punk rock dives thirteen years ago. The main editor, J.T. Whitehead, told me the five poems happened to fit his five mental divisions for all the work they published in that volume. So it goes. And here are those five poems.



Blonde boy gone to war!
Come back as beautiful as you are
The smell of sea on your lips
Salt on your eyelashes
Blonde boy gone to war!

– By Orhan Veli
Translated from the Turkish by Defne Halman and Chris King



What didn't we do for this country!
Some of us died
Some gave speeches

– By Orhan Veli
Translated from the Turkish by Defne Halman and Chris King



I wonder
When a tank dreams
Does it have desires
And what does an airplane think
When it's on its own?

Do gas masks enjoy
Singing songs in unison
In the moonlight?

And don't rifles even have as much compassion
As us humans?

 – By Orhan Veli
Translated from the Turkish by Defne Halman and Chris King



You're right
Probably the death of 10,000 people in Warsaw
Is not as nice
As the art of exaggeration
And a military regiment
Isn't like a carnation
"Coming from a lover's lips"

– By Orhan Veli
Translated from the Turkish by Defne Halman and Chris King


(Hitler Will Surrender Himself to Literature)

I wrote poems all these years
What did I find?
I'll be a bandit from now on

Let those guys who waylay you
On mountain roads know
There's no more work for them

I'm eating their lunch now
Let them know
There's a vacancy

In the literary trade

– By Orhan Veli
Translated from the Turkish by Defne Halman and Chris King


Looking only at the authors published on pages adjacent to one of these poems, this placed Orhan Veli and our voices immediately beside Marge Piercy, Robert Bly and Vonnegut himself. That was cool.

I also was humbled and honored to have one of my own poems published in the inaugural edition of this literary journal connected to the great, hilarious, compassionate Kurt Vonnegut.



I beg your pardon, but how
can you honor the soldier and not the whore,
sailors and not streetwalkers,
the brave men fallen dead in battle and not
the courageous women whose
dirty duty and detail it is to blow
off soldiers’ heads and offer
to sailors the only port that feels like home?

– By Chris King


That's also my Veteran's Day poem, by the way -- soon to be translated into Russian by Kanat Omar. who is taking back to Kazakhstan one of my author copies of Issue No. 1.

So It Goes and Kurt Vonnegut's own books may be purchased at the online gift shop for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

My co-translator Defne Halman, still doing the punk rock protest thing, in The Guardian.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Bootblogging #23: Six by Lydia's Trumpet

This morning Randall Roberts was musing that he wanted to share some music by Lydia's Trumpet, one of St. Louis' lost chamber pop bands, before anyone thought to name that quirky, at times precious, genre. Randall is one of our local music scenesters done good - he writes about music for the Los Angeles Times - so I wanted to hook him up.

Lydia's Trumpet - led by songwriter and chord strummer Ray Kirsch - was quirky, at times precious, clever but never smarmy, and at times unapologetically rhapsodic. Ray was not afraid to reach for the huge themes and statements, like interstellar distances, the origin and applications of petroleum, and wanting to make it with your girlfriend's mom.

Ray was very warm and likeable as a person, and he made friends with the best rock and pop musicians in the St. Louis scene of the late '80s and early '90s, who all played together in The Lettuceheads.

His friends did that ace rock musician thing where they all played secondary or tertiary instruments to back Ray up, so Lettucehead frontman Mike Burgett was Lydia's Trumpet's nervy drummer, and the best piano and keys player in town, ever (Carl Pandolfi), played bass. I seem to hear Jon Ferber singing, but can't picture him playing an instrument behind Ray.

Tim McAvin, not a Lettucehead, played his typical instrument (then) of electric guitar, but he had this magical way of standing there on stage absolutely puzzled by what he was playing or singing - because they all sang, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip dripping away around Ray. I remember Carl talking about Ray's songs being like a child's drawings, both erratic and beautifully simple, with an innocence the accomplished musicians who played them tried very carefully to protect.

To my knowledge, Lydia's Trumpet made a cassette, Catalpa, a CD, Marmalade, and a 7 inch on Faye Records, Copernicus. I've kept up with most of these guys, and Burgett at some point made me a CD of the Catalpa songs that now survive in my collection only on a compilation I made of Catalpa and my favorite songs from Marmalade. My copy of Copernicus seems not to have survived one of my bouts of between-homelessness as a traveling rock musician.

The last time I saw Ray, I was going over some co-translations of Turkish poetry I was working on at the time, and after milking me for information about the project - he left the conversation equipped to write a chamber pop story song about Orhan Veli and Istanbul - he told me, "You're always doing something that seems hard to do." Then he left St. Louis to learn how to draw maps in Minneapolis. I've not heard of him for many years.

These are my six favorite songs from Catalpa.


from Catalpa
Lydia's Trumpet

"Rocket to Mars"
(Ray Kirsch)

"93 Million"
(Ray Kirsch)

(Ray Kirsch)

(Ray Kirsch)

"The Girl with Indefinite Hair"
(Ray Kirsch)

(Ray Kirsch)

The song titles are all best guesses, since I am working from my own naked mix CD, and I'll be happy to make corrections.

The songs belong to Ray and the performances to the band, so please enjoy and share them freely but make no commercial use of them. I do not let Blogger sell ads for this blog.

More in this series

Bootblogging #1: Three by The Lettuce Heads
Bootblogging #2: Three elegies for local musicians
Bootblogging #3: Michael Shannon Friedman
Bootblogging #4: Three more by The Lettuce Heads
Bootblogging #5: Chuck Reinhart's guitar circle hits
Bootblogging #6: The silly side of The Lettuce Heads
Bootblogging #7: Songs for "Divorcing God"
Bootblogging #8: More songs for "Divorcing God
Bootblogging #9: Adam Long presents The Imps!
Bootblogging #10: More Michael Shannon Friedman
Bootblogging #11: The Adversary Workers
Bootblogging #12: The May Day Orchestra
Bootblogging #13: Solo Career live in Santa Monica
Bootblogging #14: Four from The Funhouse (Seattle punk)
Bootblogging #15: Four more from The Funhouse (Seattle punk rock)
Bootblogging #16: I will be your volunteer! (for Bob Slate)
Bootblogging #17: Yet more The Lettuce Heads
Bootblogging  #18: Four by Russell Hoke
Bootblogging #19: Krakersy (is Crackers in Polish)
Bootblogging #20- Four by Grandpa's Ghost
Bootblogging #21: Eight by Jaime Gartelos
Bootblogging #22: Five by Bob Reuter

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Journey through journalism & terror with Jihad

I walked out of the office on Monday afternoon to blow a hole in my stomach with a bag of jalapeno potato chips, and when I got back to work the television set was on and everyone was watching a public emergency. Bombs had been set off at the finish line to the Boston Marathon.

I work in journalism -- local community journalism in St. Louis -- so this was not my problem, professionally speaking, and I have a lot of problems to solve every week as managing editor of a high-performing newspaper owned by a high-expectation publisher. So I went back to work and tried hard not too think too hard about what was happening in Boston.

It didn't work. I kept paying attention to the bad news. And I was really sick that night. I was sick from eating jalapeno potato chips, sick from the Boston Marathon getting bombed, sick from people getting killed and maimed at a positive public event in a beautiful city. And I was sick from everybody I know saying the same two or three things over and over and over and over and over and over and over on the social media I follow, on and off, all day, out of habit and professional necessity.

I was sick that this happened in Boston. I left home in Granite City, Illinois in 1984 at age 18 for U.S. Navy bootcamp in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and after bootcamp I reported to the NROTC Unit at Boston University. Boston was my first town that was not my hometown, the first town that felt completely mine. I still love it fiercely and mentally compare it to every place I visit. I tend to talk more about other places, the way we'll talk more about our interesting friends than we do about the siblings we come to take for granted, but that is my city that got bombed.

With our small staff charging through the usual assortment of challenges, we put out another newspaper on Thursday. It was full, as usual, of positive local community news -- personally my favorite kind of journalism, though I have reported for a major metro daily (The New York Times) and reviewed books for a gloomy radical weekly (The Nation). I have come to the conclusion that bad news will find people, or they will go looking for it fearfully, but what people need served to them is good positive news.

I tried hard not to think too hard about what was going on in Boston. The bad news always finds me without any effort on my part. But Boston is my city, so in fact I kept poring over national news sources when I wasn't working on the next week's paper, or mentoring a journalist who came to St. Louis for a few days to study how I manage a weekly newspaper, or going to my band rehearsal, or taking care of family errands.

I got up in the middle of the night on Thursday, which is to say very early Friday morning. There was no good reason for me to be awake. I usually sleep soundly through to the morning (unless I have eaten a bag of jalapeno potato chips, but that was Monday). I drifted to my laptop in the dark and looked for bad news in Boston. I quickly saw the shit had hit the fan in Watertown.

The journalist's instinct of finding the most direct source kicked in, so soon I was following a Reddit post where someone was reporting on the local police scanner and on a number of Twitter users who happened to live in the neighborhood where the shit was hitting the fan. From Reddit I found links to the Boston police scanner and Twitter reporters, and very quickly I left behind the traditional bad news media. The professional reporters seemed to be waiting for official announcements at Arsenal Mall, whereas I was getting raw reports from the front.

Alongside those raw reports, I was also getting bug-eyed speculation. None of the bug-eyed speculation was any more far-fetched than the official report that would emerge later in the early morning. In my sleep deprivation I came to believe one preposterous theory about the identity of the younger bomber. And while my experience as a journalist (who has made every possible mistake as a reporter) kept me from posting my new received opinion publicly, I did wake up my spouse and told her the news I thought she would be hearing in the morning.

When I woke back up, I was reminded why people follow the bad news. It's so full of surprises. The culprits were not the kid the Reddit crowd had focused on but a 19 year-old-wrestler from Cambridge and his 20-something big brother, a Golden Gloves boxer, both from Chechnya by way of Kyrgyzstan. None of us saw that one coming. The nerds on Reddit weren't going there. Most of the cops talking logistics on the Boston scanner probably couldn't find Chechnya or Kyrgyzstan on a map.

The other shocker was that the younger bomber -- known on Reddit the night before as "White Hat," after the color of the ballcap he was wearing backwards when he bombed Boston -- had escaped. When I went to sleep, according to the raw reports from the front, it seemed like a whole lot of armed and armored cops had the kid cornered with his bigger and older accomplice dead. How the hell did he get away?

Though I certainly was not rooting for this kid, far from it, I had to admire his pluck and luck in the dark of the night. He was a cold-blooded killer and a coward of a covert bomber, but he also outran a mob of the much better armed and longer arm of the law. America has traditions of respect for the outlaw and the vigilante. However little he deserved our respect, White Hat seemed to have escaped into those traditions.

I was thinking about these things as I picked up the young journalist who came to St. Louis to study my moves. His name happens to be Jihad Hassan Muhammad. I know, it comes across as a bit much in this age of terror with the evil Other being a Moslem jihadist, but that's the man's chosen name. Jihad is a very devout convert to Islam, and he holds very dear to his heart the devout Muslim principal of jihad, of spiritual struggle with the forces of darkness within us, and the Prophet Muhammad was the Messenger of the faith that saved his soul.

That day, Friday, I made sure Jihad learned from other people at our paper with more to teach him, our publisher Donald M. Suggs and web editor Kenya Vaughn. After all, I had only been teaching him Suggs' model of community journalism, and as a good journalist he needed to hear from the direct source in Suggs himself. And while I manage the challenging operations of a still-thriving print platform, Kenya deals with what people are really reading in the increasingly online real world.

I still had lots of copy to chop and photos to track down if we were to keep moving toward our next deadline, but I kept an eye on Boston. The bad news reports were starting to sound like a not very believable movie. Boston was basically under martial law so that authorities could find one 19-year-old-kid who had escaped on foot. I'm not sure I could have suggested a better idea, given the stakes, but still I was ashamed for our country. Our freedom seemed so fragile. A teenager with a crockpot bomb can paralyze an entire city and put it under temporary martial law.

I bid goodbye to Jihad, whose fiancee was coming to visit, then went to the Missouri History Museum to participate in a fiction reading. When I arrived at the museum, I told one of the other readers, my friend Virvus Jones, that I had not been able to promote our event all week. It just didn't seem important enough, with everything else that was going on. He agreed. He said it had been hard to tear himself away from news coverage to come do the reading.

"Now they got him trapped in his boat," Virvus said.


This was the first I had heard about the teenage terrorist crawling into someone's drydocked boat in the back yard and being discovered there. Virvus had seen the bad news more recently than I had. I more or less raced through our reading without paying much attention to any of it, and then rushed home to read up on the bad news. That's when I learned about the authorities admitting defeat and lifting martial law with a public pronouncement, which freed some yacht club guy in Watertown to step outside for a cigarette. Then he saw the tarp ripped on his pleasure craft, peeked inside and saw the bloody kid hiding there.

This struck me as another gruesome American irony, like the bad man being a kid in a white hat and an entire city going under martial law because of one teenager who escaped on foot. The Boston bombers, if they have identified the right people, are immigrants, and for most of our history immigrants came here on boats. Of course, all of this nightmare was going down in the cradle of the American Revolution, in the old New England founded by settlers who came by sea on ships. And now this little immigrant crock pot bomber was coming to the end of his journey in a boat in a backyard in Watertown.

The American Dream has turned into a really crummy nightmare -- a nightmare in which I wake from sleep in the middle of the night and sit up all morning listening to a police scanner in Boston, when I am supposed to be gathering and distributing good news in St. Louis.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

SCHMOOZE LUNCH MEMO, Midtown Manhattan, Mid-November 2001

I was living in New York on September 11, 2001, and still two months later when I attended a schmooze lunch in Midtown Manhattan. It was a time when the grisliest speculation about terrorism and death was mixed up at all times with everything else. I tried to capture this feeling in a disoriented little poem. It's going to be like this in Boston for awhile. Very sorry about that.


Midtown Manhattan
Mid-November 2001

The rusty hair, the big bait,
it’s the only Rembrandt still for sale, you know,
kudos on your ad deal, your
people are so smart! professional bug blue
eyes, fidgety, fancy room,
shortcomings of my Haitian tailor, relief
from tattoos, sequined choker

of motorcycle mama shredding extra
bread into her vagrant pursed
lips and declining cleavage in a thermal
shirt – Amsterdam! only Old
Master! cell phone talk, table to table,
talking up his talk – no match
for the latest from the price-fixing trial – did you
feel sorry for him? I did,
until I saw him, father kindness, the kind
you can’t tell from predation
until he doesn’t try to take you home – I

think a lot of the bodies
are pulverized; I think some of them are parts.

-- Chris King

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Henry Miller hated, hated, hated St. Louis: 'a foul, stinking corpse'

For whatever reason, I have been slow to read most of the American counter-cultural classics. I only got started on Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1934) this winter when my friend Lola van Ella scored it for interactive burlesque, giving me homework to do.

I've not been able to finish that book (there's more in Tropic of Cancer about being famished in Paris than anything sexy), but it did make me pull down from my shelf a later and lesser-known work by Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). I've had a battered Panther Books paperback in my collection for many years without even flirting with reading it.

Yesterday I had four young girls in my care on roller skates at a roller rink, which freed me to sit up in what might generously be called the lobby and do some pleasure reading. And I came across some fascinating stuff in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. The book is basically a venomous anti-American travelogue, Steinbeck's Travels with Charley except where the sidekick is not a dog but a fellow jaded expatriate who fled Paris as Hitler's war was hitting there. Miller and his road buddy miss Paris and France so hard they'd almost rather be back there ducking air raids than driving from state to state on American highways that make Miller see blood red.

He hates just about everything and every place about his native country, but saves special scathing scorn for my city, St. Louis, Missouri, which he sees for the first time in the early 1940s. Henry Miller writes of "the tomb of St. Louis which is called a city, but which is a foul, stinking corpse rising up from the plains like an advertisement of Albrecht Durer's 'Melancholia'."

The St. Louis of my experience (1985 to present, with interruptions) is very beloved by architects and architectural aficionados (or, as I like to call them when trying to be a rascal, the building huggers). So it really shocked me that Henry Miller found our city to be an architectural monstrosity:

".. this great American city creates the impression that architecture itself has gone mad. The true morbidity of the American soul finds its outlet here. Its hideousness is not only appalling but suffocating. The houses seem to have been decorated with rust, blood, tears, sweat, bile, rheum, and elephant dung."

This makes me want to get out my copy of Bill Streeter's St. Louis documentary Brick by Chance and Fortune to see if he uncovered this quote. If not, maybe it can be included in a second edition, because that sure sounds like an evil-eyed description of our beloved brick houses.

I'll also have to thank Lola for scoring this sourpuss' classic novel for interactive burlesque: for summoning Henry Miller's spirit back to a place he couldn't leave fast enough: "One can imagine the life which goes on there - something a la Theodore Dreiser at his worst. Nothing can terrify me more than the thought of being doomed to spend the rest of my days in such a place."

Love you back, Henry Miller!


There is hope, if Lola conjured Henry Miller's spirit to her interactive burlesque score of Tropic of Cancer, that the author would have taken a more charitable view of St. Louis in 2013, roughly seventy years after his first and presumably only visit to our river city. For in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare Miller begrudgingly praises another Mississippi River city, New Orleans. N'arlins evokes his beloved Paris, of course, but there is more to it: "here at last on this bleak continent," Miller writes of New Orleans, "the sensual pleasures assume the importance which they deserve." Certainly, the same can be said of St. Louis any time Lola is running the show!


The image is Albrecht Durer's 'Melancholia'.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

T.D. El-Amin, Virvus Jones, Chris King read from novels at History Museum

Three St. Louis novelists (all better known for other things) will read excerpts from their work 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 19 in the Lee Auditorium at the Missouri History Museum: T.D. El-Amin, Virvus Jones and Chris King.

The reading is free and open to the public and should last a little over an hour. It will be followed by an afterparty at The Royale public house, 3132 S. Kingshighway.

TD El-Amin will read from his newly published novel, Mia Farone: Lost and Turned Out. A daughter of Italian and African-American parents, the heroine is uprooted from her native Tivoli to the streets of St. Louis, where she falls in with a hustler ten years her senior. The novel tastefully expresses intimacy and sexuality while tactfully combining suspense and intrigue. El-Amin will sell and sign copies of his novel at the reading and afterparty.

Virvus Jones will read from his unpublished novel The Stalking Horse. This autobiographical novel follows a streetwise young black man from North St. Louis as he outgrows his parochial environment and begins to ask questions of the wider world as the Civil Rights Movement explodes around him. It veers in style from the folkloric intimacy of Zora Neale Hurston to the hard, plain speaking of Richard Wright.

Chris King will read from his unpublished novel Big, Black & Good. His novel follows the disintegration of a reality TV show about an obese black rapper named Big Carb. The show's casting call is for a rapper who is "big, black and good," but the young man from North St. Louis who wins the competitive audition turns out to be a little better -- at heart -- than his blaxploitative coproducers bargained for.


TD El-Amin is a former host of the radio program Touching Base with TD and former Missouri state representative. A U.S. Navy veteran, he joined the service in the late 1980s expecting that the world travel would widen his perspective as a writer. Mia Farone: Lost and Turned Out is his first book.

Virvus Jones most recently managed the successful campaign of his daughter Tishaura O. Jones for St. Louis Treasurer. He is a former Comptroller, Assessor and Alderman of St. Louis. He was cofounder of the Political EYE column in The St. Louis American.

Chris King is a producer, filmmaker, musician and journalist. He is creative director of Poetry Scores, which translates poetry into other media, and managing editor of The St. Louis American. His most recent book is a chapbook of poetry, Shape of a Man (Intagliata Imprints, 2012).

For more information, email Chris King at


Saturday, March 30, 2013

It's hard to think of rest, Theo, it's hard to think of peace

Poster from a rock & roll safehouse,
Louisville, Kentucky, ca. 1991 (detail) by Rhonda Roberts

Anyone who has ever lived dangerously and loved deeply at the same time has friends whose death would come as no surprise. Theo was always one of those people in my life. I met her more than twenty years ago when we were both what I would now call kids, and even then I wouldn't have been surprised if she had turned up dead. I would have been horrified and disgusted, angry and profoundly sad, but not surprised. Theo was courageous, candid, often fearless, and she loved with a wild abandon many things that are very dangerous, even deadly: booze, narcotics, band guys, sex with band guys, a good dare.

Theo has died at age 44. I am horrified and disgusted, angry and profoundly sad, but not surprised. It always seemed like she could go away from us at any time. When social media threw old friends and lovers into each other's arms a few years ago, and Theo and I found one another online, I'll admit that I was pleasantly surprised to find her still alive. I probably would have been less surprised if I had found one of the other girls from the Louisville scene of the early 1990s alive instead and she had told me Theo was no longer with us.

I totally loved Theo. Theo was one of my great teachers. I ran away from graduate school in literature to play rock & roll on the road in 1991 and ran smack dab into Theo and all of her creepy and fabulous friends in Louisville, Kentucky. It's a long story that only matters, at this point, to a few hundred people. We lived the rock & roll dream, playing our music in bars, going home with strangers, waking up in the middle of house parties that turned into unexpected adventures in strange cities. We took each other on the road, from town to town. We evolved shared vocabularies with a widening circle of friends who stayed in touch through original rock & roll music traveling from town to town in battered vans. Media was much less social back then, so it was left to socially gifted people like Theo to connect people and to keep us that way.

We all did a lot of things back then that we probably aught not to have done. But we did them anyway. The problem is these things can be very fun to do when you are young and discovering yourself and have no one else to care for but yourself. Most of the people I know from those days slowed way down and, at some point, began to take care of people other than themselves who needed them to stay alive. So we have stayed alive. I am told that Theo never slowed down very much and, from what I could tell, she seemed to remain her only (considerable) caretaking problem until the end.

I want to be 25 again, and for Theo to be 23. I want to do it all over again and once again to learn from Theo about rock &roll and all those exciting and dangerous things that travel with rock & roll. Because I want to go back there so badly, despite all of the nourishing and thrilling things in my life today, I forgive Theo for never slowing down or completely growing up. If it didn't kill you, it was one hell of a way to live. The rock & roll party all night (and into the next day) journey that Theo took us on was an ecstatic experience. Everyone truly alive that I have ever known was looking for some equivalent of that ecstatic experience. Theo was an expert at creating and freely sharing ecstatic experience. It was, and is, so worth living for.

We owe you, Theodora Collins. We miss you, Theo.

Monday, March 18, 2013

War Baby and the Great American Father

Photo from Thinksquad.

War Baby and the Great American Father
A Labor & Delivery Journal

By Chris King

It was so late there was nothing on TV, except the war. So we were watching the war, and my wife Karley was having contractions, coming closer and closer together. When she was down to one contraction every five minutes, it was delivery room time, according to doctor’s orders. It was dawn in Baghdad and the cable news stations were reporting the latest rumor that Saddam Hussein had been bombed to death when we shut off the television set and got on the road.

It had snowed all day – freakishly, because it was April in New York. The day had just barely turned to April 8th as we drove through the Midtown Tunnel into Manhattan. The roads had emptied of traffic in the middle of the night, so I had less of that horrific feeling that a terrorist would detonate a bomb while my pregnant wife and I were driving under the East River. An empty tunnel on a snowy night just didn’t deliver much bang for the buck, if killing infidels was part of the plan.


As Karley writhed in pain in a hospital bed, it was beginning to look like April 8th would be the birthday of our first child. My wife does not like someone hovering over her, especially when she is in pain, so I took a seat nearby and prepared to read a book I had brought along to the hospital. It was a new, scholarly selection of The Journals of Lewis and Clark, the report commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to document the westward expedition that explored the newly purchased Louisiana Territory in the early days of the 19th century. With April 8th on my brain, I paged through the dated journal entries, looking to see how the captains and their men had fared on April 8th, our first baby’s birthday-to-be.

I turned, by chance, to April 8th, 1805. Meriwether Lewis kept the journal that day. The scholarly selection of the journals I had brought with me made no attempt to clean up or modernize the language in the captains’ field reporting, so it reads kind of raw. Captain Lewis noted, “I walked on shore, and visited the black Cat, took leave of him after smoking a pipe as is their custom, and then proceded on slowly by land about four miles where I wated the arrival of the party, at 12 Oclock they came up and informed me that one of the small canoes was behind in distress. Capt Clark returned fou[n]d she had filled with water and all her loading wet. we lost half a bag of bisquit, and about thirty pounds of powder by this accedent; the powder we regard as a serious loss [...]”

Sounds like a pretty crummy day: a canoe full of precious, soaking-wet stuff, of spoiled food and ruined ammunition. At least, confiding his thoughts to his journal, rather than to (say) a journalist embedded with the Corps of Discovery, Captain Lewis didn’t feel compelled to add, “But we are still on pace, according to plan” – the sort of platitude appearing daily in American newspapers carrying reports of journalists embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are rightly remembered as brave explorers, hardy travelers, historic precursors of anyone who ever went overland on a major Western vacation. But they were also captains of a United States military expedition, and 19th century American history is an unbroken story of regime change in Indian country, aided by primitive biological warfare – blankets contaminated by smallpox and measles, handed out freely to tribes with no resistance to those wasting diseases. I couldn’t help but think of the U.S. military of today, openly embarked on violent regime change to oust a latter-day, more highly technological biological warrior in Saddam Hussein.

Unlike the U.S. military leaders moving through Iraq, who didn’t have much time to stop and smell the desert wildflowers, Lewis and Clark were their own embedded journalists. As part of their commission, they were field reporters of geography, plants, animals, and Indians. On April 8th, 1805, the Corps of Discovery was just breaking winter camp at Fort Mandan in what is now North Dakota. After grousing about those thirty pounds of ruined gunpowder, Lewis worked up his winter birding notes:

“The only birds I observed during the winter at Fort Mandan was the Missouri Magpie, a bird of the Corvus genus, the raven in immence numbers, the small woodpecker or sapsucker as they are sometimes called the beautifull eagle, or calumet bird, so called from the cicumstance of the natives decorating their pipestems with it’s plumage and the Prairie Hen or grouse.”

I typed these notes into my handheld gizmo as Karley slumbered, numbed and knocked out by an anesthetic. I was struck by this hasty catalog of birds, how the “beautifull” golden eagle appears wedged in between an unknown woodpecker called the sapsucker and the common grouse. Lewis recognizes the golden eagle’s beauty, he knows its native name (the “calumet bird,” named for a ceremonial pipe), and he has seen and even smoked from pipes bedecked with its “plumage,” which mark them as profoundly holy items. In fact, that was his morning business on that day, April 8th, 1805: he smoked a sacred pipe with a Mandan named Black Cat. Yet all this beauty and holiness is presented as just another logistic. It gets lost in a list between a sapsucker and a grouse.


When the hospital medical staff was hitting Karley up with the epidural anesthetic, I prayed. I was itching to be helpful, and it was the best I could do. Sinking an epidural is a harrowing procedure, involving a needle injecting into the spinal column – one false move and she could get a wicked headache, or worse. If she sat still, though, her wracking labor pains would soon go away. “Tree of life and light,” I prayed, over and over again, in the manner of a mantra, “Tree of life and light, please ease her passage.” It is a fragment of a prayer that I developed one burning hot July at a Sun Dance ceremony in Lakota country. I arrived at the reservation as a creature of logistics, a mere ride home for one of the Sun Dancers, and I left there praying, powerfully swept up in that old-time religion. I drove home from the reservation smelling of sage and tobacco smoked from a holy pipe adorned with eagle plumage.


“Plumage.” I was getting sick of that word, or one of its cognates. I didn’t have much stomach for watching war on television, but I did follow The New York Times’ coverage of the war in Iraq. Embedded journalists don’t have much more time to rework and freshen their prose than Meriwether Lewis did when keeping his field journal in uncertain Indian country, but they do have editors working in the relative safety and comfort of New York City, and I wished their editors would flip off the imagery switch on “plumes.” Iraq was on fire, bombs rained down by the hour, and every one of those damned fires and bombs seemed to be sending “plumes” of smoke into the desert sky.


With the epidural anesthetic in her system, Karley was enjoying her first peace in twenty-four hours. Before the needle, contractions had doubled her up like kicks in the gut; now, she had to ask the nurse to consult a machine to tell her when she last had one.

I hadn’t slept, and I didn't want to sleep. Coffee seemed to be the answer. I made the trek down from the 8th floor, Labor & Delivery, to the cafeteria, where I was overjoyed to find hot, strong coffee. It was labeled “French roast,” which brought to mind a new linguistic idiocy – the movement to rebrand “French fries” in the U.S. as “Freedom fries,” because the French government had not opted to join the United States in its pursuit of violent regime change in Iraq. I wondered if one day they would be serving “Freedom roast” coffee in this country too.

Tisch Hospital, operated by New York University, is a prestigious teaching hospital. The place makes you feel like you are getting the most elite health care on the planet. Our private delivery room was enormous. It was bigger than the tiny apartment Karley and I first shared in Queens, which was barely big enough for her alone when I came bumbling along, calling her on a payphone from an Indian reservation in Nebraska. I was taking a break from a brutal religious ceremony, calling everyone I hoped to see at my next stop, in New York City – including that French African woman I had met on the plane.

The elevators and hallways of the hospital were bustling with young, energetic residents and medical students. At age 36, I was having a new feeling when I saw people like them. It was the same feeling I had when I watched professional soldiers on TV. I was just old enough to legitimately feel like matters of life and death – even my own life and death, even the life and death of my wife and unborn child – were left in the hands of kids who didn’t know anything about life or death.


We had a window room for labor and delivery, facing north into the teeth of the Arctic front that had brought us snow in April. The icy wind cutting into the cracks of the windows had the faint sound of a baby’s squall.


Another cup of French roast coffee. “Could you hit ‘8’ for me?” I said in the elevator, on my way back up, and a beefy security guard smiled. “Having babies,” he said, warmly. Even hardened hospital workers brightened when they came across an anxious man bound for the 8th floor, Labor & Delivery, as I learned during the six months we lived in this hospital during the nightmare phase of Karley’s pregnancy. She went a month without eating anything, was fed paste intravenously through a tube: we were a persistent worry on one floor in the hospital reserved for life, not sickness, damage, and death.

A nurse came in who had tended to Karley in the sickbed days. Karley’s blood pressure had spiked, which put her at risk of seizure during labor, so they were adding magnesium to her I.V. to reduce that risk. The magnesium would slow her contractions, so they were starting her on pitocin to counteract that effect and keep her labor moving on schedule. Not for the first time in this pregnancy, I thought of war. I couldn’t possibly count all of the machines tracking and assisting Karley’s progress in delivering this child. Yet many people, in many places, would deliver a baby today with no help other than a pair of hands to catch the infant on the other end. Just as the American military advancing across the desert looked almost ludicrously tricked out with gear and weaponry compared to the Iraqis, who seemed to be wearing nothing but sandals and rags.


With labor on slow idle, and Karley out of pain, I had time to think about other things. Like, who was this Black Cat character? The Mandan guy Meriwether Lewis smoked a sacred pipe with on April 8th, 1805? That was the highlight of Lewis’ day on the date that will be our baby’s birthday, and I have always felt a kinship with Meriwether Lewis, the explorer with the enchanting name and the more personally touching journal entries. Meriwether Lewis always struck me as the moody soul of the expedition, with William Clark its stolid reality principle.

I paged back in the journals, looking for when Black Cat first entered the scene. The captains first encountered him in late October, 1804. He was chief of a Mandan village on the Missouri River that Clark spelled phonetically as Roop tar-hee. By mid-November, Black Cat was consulting earnestly with the captains, sharing the minutes (so to speak) of his tribe’s war councils and listening to Clark’s advice for his people “to remain at peace.” Pacifists will love many such moments in the journals, though it’s a mistake to see them as evidence of a less than hawkish approach to “the Indian problem.” The captains counseled peace because they were not trying to divide the tribes to occupy their land (that would be a later phase of westward expansion). Rather, they were business agents, trying to keep liquid the flow of goods, with the U.S. now installed as their new supplier. Here is Clark’s advice to Black Cat, with motive included: “we advised them to remain at peace & that they might depend upon Getting Supplies through the Channel of the Missouri.”

The Corps’ competitive commercial edge is laid bare later that November, when Black Cat paid another visit to the captains. After receiving “a fiew presents of Curioes Handkerchiefs arms bans & paint with a twist of Tobaco,” the chief got a frank sales pitch. (Of course, this comes from the journal kept by Clark, the square, dull suit.) Apparently, a “British Trader Mr. Le rock” had been “Giveing Meadils & Flags” to the Mandans. Black Cat was ordered by Clark “to impress it on the minds of their nations that those Simbells were not to be recved by any from them, without they wished incur the displieasure of their Great American Father.”

In February of 1805, the Corps of Discovery was still camped with the Mandans when Lewis first took note of Black Cat. True to form, Meriwether meditated on the human being – “this man possesses more integrity, firmness, inteligence and perspicuety of mind than any indian I have met with in this quarter” – before getting down to business: “and I think with a little management he may be made a usefull agent in furthering the views of our government.”

Later that month, Black Cat’s son spent the night in the captains’ camp. I like to think that this Mandan man of intelligence and perspicuity had figured out that the future, for better or for worse, lie in the hands of these Americans, and he wanted his son to study them up close, to see the future for himself.


I worked up these notes on my portable email gizmo at a small table in our Labor & Delivery room, with frequent glances at Karley’s blood pressure and the baby’s heart monitor. My medical interventions, such that they were, consisted of telling Karley to roll onto her side when the baby’s heart rate dropped, which was something I had heard the head nurse tell her to do, and it did seem to do the trick. Not that the hospital staff needed much help getting babies born today. The low pressure system that brings storms also seems to drop babies out of pregnant women, and the ward was swamped with women moving swiftly through labor.


When I found my way back to April 8th, 1805 in the journals, I learned that, browsing for the birthday of our baby, I happened to meet Black Cat just as Meriwether Lewis was saying good-bye to him. That sacred pipe they had shared was actually a going-away smoke, one for the road.

Our final glimpse of Black Cat comes during the Corps’ return journey a year and a half later, when they were high-tailing it back to St. Louis. That’s my hometown, and the ultimate secret of my fascination with Meriwether Lewis, since the Corps of Discovery set forth from St. Louis and the town is steeped in history of the expedition. When the Corps touched down again in Mandan country, briefly, in the spirit of a follow-up call to a new potential client, Black Cat was one of several chiefs who expressed interest in voyaging with them to Washington. In the end, though, he bowed to flinty realism. His people had been lost in the hell of war while the Corps of Discovery tramped its way to the west coast and back. Their primary enemy, the Sioux, “were on the river below and would Certainly kill him if he attempted to go down,” Clark noted, and though Clark promised that the captains “would not Suffer those indians to hurt any of our red Children who Should think proper to accompany us,” Black Cat wasn’t buying any of it. He stayed put. Perhaps he had his doubts about the Great American Father’s ability, or even desire, to protect “his little red children” when Great American Father was doing his own business.


Karley had so many tubes sticking out of her she took on the appearance of a machine. The nurses carefully checked her fluids and her pressures, like skilled mechanics anxious about the machine’s ability to perform in the clutch. The analogy showed its limits, however, as the head nurse bent down to admire the sharp curves of Karley’s cheekbones and the dark almonds of her eyes, and expressed hope (this American father hoping right along with her) that faithful copies of those features were inching from her womb toward the future.


Because I didn’t want to dwell morbidly on Karley’s high blood pressure, I kept thinking about that British trader in Mandan country, and how Clark had warned the Indians against doing business with him lest they anger their Great American Father. It sounded so familiar. I paged back to late November, 1804, and found a passage in Clark’s journal where he actually confronted the competition, the trader Mr. La Rock, who was in-country at the same time as the Corps of Discovery. Clark noted of La Rock that “we informed him what we had herd of his intentions of makeing Chiefs &c. and forbid him to give meadels or flags to the Indians.” Wait a minute. Making chiefs? Sure enough, paging back farther, there was Clark gathering intelligence about the various local leaders, and there he was handing out medals, bestowing his vision of rank among the Mandans. So his message to Mr. La Rock was: run along, now, we’ve already decided who are the chiefs and who are the Indians around here – and they are our captive market. That speech hasn’t changed much in 200 years. Now the Great American Father is picking himself some new chiefs to help him topple the old chief in Iraq, where he’s trying to hold an oil market captive.


April 8th didn’t mean anything to me before today. But April 7th did, and not only because that was the date our baby had been predicted to appear. It is also the date on which my father was born, though I didn’t know that until I told my mother the due date of her grandchild. And that’s because I never really knew my dad, who wasn’t such a great American father.

But I couldn’t help noticing that April 7th, my father’s birthday, was a much better day for Meriwether Lewis in 1805 than April 8th was. In fact, Lewis wrote a very famous passage on April 7th, 1805, one that shines with all the eloquence he brought to the journals:

“We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves. entertaining as I do, the most confident hope of succeading in a voyage which had formed a da[r]ling project of mine for the last ten years, I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.”

His very next journal entry was his farewell to Black Cat on April 8th, a day of soggy biscuits and ruined gunpowder, the first day of the rest of his life, a life that ended violently, in apparent suicide: pulling the trigger on a gun aimed at his own head.


I worried about having a war baby. What would I say? “I remember the day you were born. Your countrymen were applauding the 21st century’s first colonial war. We were taking over a distant stretch of desert because there is oil buried there.” But then, I was a war baby, born in 1966 in the throes of Vietnam, and I don’t remember any of its images, though they must have flashed many times across my infant face. Karley’s home country, Togo, was torn by military coups in the years of her earliest childhood. It’s probably true that we are all war babies, thrust with agony to she who nurtured us into a world of chaos and violence.

The doctor said the baby’s head was a little lower now, a little further from warmth and comfort, a little closer to the future. Already with a plastic stick the doctor slit the baby’s bubble of fluid, its first supportive ocean now a bloody stain in a dirty hospital hamper. The opening that would let this life into the light was a little wider, now, since the last time anybody checked with rubber-gloved fingers. Karley, drugged, whistled with a tiny snore. April was weird and cold and white outside the window. A baby’s heart was knocking, knocking, knocking on our door.

Leyla Fern King at birth